Czechia's primary tasks during its EU presidency, the war in Ukraine, expanding the EU, green ideology, relations within the V4 – all of these are topics we discussed with MEP Tomáš Zdechovský.
Czechia has taken over the presidency of the European Union for the second time starting this July. What do you see as our primary task in the upcoming six months?
Making sure there is sufficient gas in the EU so that the people do not freeze come winter. We have to keep reducing our energy dependence on Russia, providing continuous military support to Ukraine in its fight for independence, and last but not least, making sure we discuss the form that the post-war reconstruction of the devastated Ukraine will take. Personally, I am glad that the European Commission was quick in implementing the so-called Strategic Compass, which is an initiative that aims to bolster the Union's ability to resist potential security threats. It has been approved by the EU Council as early as this March.
How do you see our first presidential stint which took place over twelve years ago now? What should we pick up again from the former agenda and what should we avoid instead?
Mirek Topolánek was a very prominent leader who, despite receiving help from Chancellor Merkel when facing a crisis, was able to prove that he himself is also a problem solver. He was brought to his knees by domestic politics and a poorly planned move by his rival, Paroubek. That is where I see certain potential parallels, ones that I hope do not end up being drawn, however. This government has a mandate much stronger than Topolánek's did, which is why I do not expect it to topple. Prime Minister Fiala is, however, faced with a difficult challenge. We know that the different populist movements in the Czech Republic are out to get the government. The first 100-day period, usually a time for the government to ease into its new role, was almost non-existent, ANO and SPD went on the offensive right away. I feel that certain former ministers from ANO should be more careful with their proclamations. Their policy is what caused chaos in our public finances.
Since the war in Ukraine began, Czechia has been able to provide "temporary sanctuary" to more than 350 000 refugees of war. Is that something to be proud of?
Most definitely! These acts are appreciated throughout Europe. We have shown that we need no quotas, that we are able to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees without them. We identify with the word "solidarity". But the disposition in society is shifting and we have to be ready for that. Czechia has the lowest unemployment rate in the EU and there are plenty of businesses that are looking for workers to help them out of a bind. This could help our economy. The integration of the refugees into society was swift and I hope that it will continue into the future. Naturally, if the Ukrainians want to stay here, they have to adapt to our lifestyle, find jobs and places to live, which most of them have fortunately done. The government can help them get on their feet.
Ukraine's candidate status was approved in June. At what point could you see this country becoming a member of the European Union?
It will be a strenuous journey. Candidate status – representing a formal invitation to join the EU – is one thing, a full membership is another. Ukraine has to meet the Copenhagen Criteria as well as other requirements for it to become a member of the EU. We all feel that it will take time before it can make the necessary changes to its system. The EU needs to be certain that Ukraine will not turn into a monetary sinkhole. Nothing will speed this process up, not even President Zelenskiy's insistence.
Should the EU expand more rapidly, especially in terms of the western Balkans?
I do not feel that way. The doors to the EU are open for many different countries. It is up to them how quickly they manage to align their policy with the EU. Moldova has shown that it wants to belong to the elite club of the EU, but even this country that fears Russian aggression is faced with many challenges it needs to overcome.
As the Czech presidency began, Croatia's full inclusion in the Eurozone was approved. Is it not a shame that Czechia still has not adopted the euro despite being economically ready for it?
It is, fair and square. I am a proponent of adopting the euro, it would elevate us economically. I am afraid, however, that the time is not quite right just yet because there are many other issues plaguing the Czech people. I do feel that the government should be heading towards adopting the euro, though. I think that we will not see it in this term yet, but the next government could be the one to implement the common European currency – I believe it will happen by 2030. Letting our feelings of nostalgia for the crown steer us is wrong. We should prove that we can keep our word and adopt the euro.
The European Parliament approved a taxonomy adding nuclear and natural gas to the list of green sources of energy. What makes this so important to Czechia and the EU?
The MEPs realized how grave the situation was and voted sensibly. The green ideology was put on the back burner. They understood that each country is faced with different conditions but all of them need sufficient energy supplies for their people. Nuclear is a key component of our energy mix because it will provide us with the necessary energy at a relatively low cost going forward. Gas is currently important as a transitory source.
Do you understand the way the Pirates voted against the taxonomy despite them being a part of the ruling coalition in Czechia, and officially in favor of nuclear energy on top of that?
No. I do not. They must have known the kind of criticism they would face. It was merely a confirmation that for them this is an ideological battle first and foremost. During the last three years, I have been watching the European Parliament Pirates diverge from the Czech ones in the Chamber.
The European Parliament is often underestimated in Czechia, and you are one of its members. Why is it important for Czechia and its people – perhaps even more important than the Czech Parliament?
The European Parliament plays a key role in European policymaking, which impacts the lives of Czech people. We are elected representatives of our countries, meaning we answer to them when it comes to our work. It is not the "evil Brussels" you often hear about in the media. There are no orders from above, we are a part of the process.
The Visegrad Four stopped making sense because of Viktor Orbán according to some. Do you feel the same? Could the V4 be replaced by the Slavkov Triangle, meaning Czechia, Slovakia, and Austria together?
I feel the fabric within the V4 shifting. It used to be the pairs of Czech Republic plus Slovakia and Poland plus Hungary. But Viktor Orbán is driving Hungary towards the outskirts of European politics. The Hungarian Prime Minister's issue is that he says one thing in Brussels, another in Budapest, and ultimately ends up doing a completely different one. Babiš was the same, that is why they got along phenomenally. Relations with Poland have improved immensely after Petr Fiala's government came to power. The quick agreement regarding the Turów mine as well as the ongoing negotiations about a gas pipeline from Poland are clear proof of that. This is the tandem that is key for further developments in the V4. We and the Polish are the movers within this group. Furthermore, good relations with Slovakia remain. V4 is a partnership that makes sense. The Slavkov Triangle worked prior to the war when the diplomatic leaders of each country met on the contact line, meaning eastern Ukraine. In a tripartite grouping, it will always be much easier to reach an accord than when four countries are involved. I do not feel, however, that the Slavkov Triangle could replace the collaboration within the V4. We should not turn our backs on a functioning mode of cooperation, no matter how much friction there may be from time to time.
Where do you see Czechia in terms of the EU in the next ten years? What should be our national ambition? And what about the European Union's ambition as a whole?
I see Czechia in ten years being a confident country whose politicians no longer claim that it is small and insignificant in terms of the EU. I see a country that is open, modern, and safe, one that has been economically transformed. The Union should focus on security because climate change will mean a massive inflow of immigrants into Europe.
The author works as a European editor for Deník
Tomáš Zdechovský (born November 2, 1979, in Havlíčkův Brod) is a Member of the European Parliament and former vice-chair of the KDU-ČSL.
In 2003, he got a bachelor's degree in political communications from the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome and a year later a master's degree in social care and leisure education from the South Bohemia University in České Budějovice, topping it off in 2008 with a master's in media studies and journalism from MUNI in Brno. In 2021, he earned an MBA in marketing. He is currently engaged in his PhD studies.
Zdechovský founded the Commservices.com s.r.o communications and PR firm in 2004. In 2011, he was appointed director of the Austrian education company WIFI Czech Republic as well as Brain2win. As an MEP, he first became an EPP coordinator in the budget control committee and later its vice-chair. At the same time, he was also the vice-chair of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL).
In 2020, he enlisted in the Active Reserves of the Czech Army. He has authored six poetry collections and one work of prose, he is interested in history, heraldry, and the agenda around the safety of children. He is married and has four children.
Czechia will be faced with a presidential election at the end of this year. Does Tomáš Zdechovský feel that the next president should be more like Václav Havel, Václav Klaus, or Miloš Zeman? "Out of those three, the next president should definitely be more like Václav Havel, a man who brought respect back to our country," he says with conviction. "Václav Klaus deserves respect for the economic transformation he orchestrated following the Revolution, although its measure of success is up for debate. Miloš Zeman showed how a head of state should never behave. Especially his second election term has been a disgrace, showing a lack of decency and just how arrogant power can make you. I expect that the new president will act with dignity and respect for all of our country's citizens. That he will try to unite, not divide society and will once again be active in diplomacy."